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INSIGHTS / MOVERS AND SHAKERS

Yu Minhong: Rags-to-riches education guru

China · Feb 26, 2019· By Wang Zeyu

When the New Oriental founder was working in the rice paddies as a teenager, it never occurred to him that he would become the richest teacher in China one day

In 2008, Yu Minhong, founder and chairman of the US-listed New Oriental Education & Technology Group, was invited to his alma mater and former employer Peking University to deliver the commencement speech. In 1991, he had resigned from the university in disgrace. His return was triumphant.

“Only two animals can reach the top. One is the eagle, who flies to the top by talent, and the other is the snail, who climbs to the top through perseverance. I have always considered myself a snail, slowly climbing but never stopping. It’s the non-stop climbing that makes my life meaningful,” said Yu. His speech was frequently interrupted by roars of laughter and applause.

The child of a peasant farmer, Yu has changed the lives of tens of millions of Chinese students both as a mentor and an educator. A passionate, inspiring and humorous speaker, he enjoys motivating young people to work hard through stories.

But it is his education company, New Oriental, that has had the greatest immediate impact: it has served 38.1 million students to date.

The Group also launched an Education and Culture Fund last year to invest RMB 1.5 billion in edtech startups, with the goal of creating a more promising future for the next generation.

“[New Oriental] is happy to provide assistance, including the experiences and lessons learnt from our development course, personal connections and funding, to young entrepreneurs,” said Yu.

Succession of setbacks

Yu likes to encourage his students using a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech: “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” He even made it the New Oriental motto.

Much of Yu’s life has been a struggle against obstacles. “I realized that life was hard, and I needed to work harder when I was a little kid,” he wrote in his book Try Your Best in the World Full of Pain.

Born in 1962 in a small village on the Yangtze River, Yu was expected to toil his entire life as a farmer like his father. When not transplanting rice seedlings or operating a walking tractor in paddy fields, Yu eked out time to study.

Determined not to spend his life hoping to make ends meet as a poor farmer, Yu twice took the national college entrance examination and failed both times. His fate changed in 1980 when, after passing the exam on his third try, he was admitted to Peking University as an English major. Yu was the first person in his village to attend college.

More bumps in the road were awaiting him at university. Yu struggled with an inferiority complex brought on by his strange accent, poor spoken English and, worst of all, a year-long hiatus after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. After receiving his bachelor’s in 1985, Yu started teaching English at his alma mater.

At the time, many of Yu’s classmates chose to continue their education abroad. In 1988, Yu decided to apply for similar opportunities.

Over the next three-and-a-half years, he was accepted into master’s programs at multiple American universities but failed to secure full scholarships from any of them. With a monthly salary of RMB 60, he couldn’t afford to pay the hundreds of thousands of RMB required to obtain a master’s in the US.

NYSE listing 

To earn extra money, in 1989, Yu began to teach students how to pass the TOEFL exam or to score high on the GRE at a small English language school located just outside Peking University. Unable to achieve his own American dream, Yu cashed in on helping others fulfil theirs.

In the autumn of 1990, Peking University, unhappy with his extracurricular teaching, accused him of giving unauthorized lectures off campus. So Yu resigned a year later. Despite losing his job, he had gained important knowledge: he was now very familiar with the procedures for applying to universities overseas as well as the English exam preparation market in China.

Yu began to run his own training classes and founded New Oriental School in 1993. The school’s first class had only 13 students. Now New Oriental Group – whose co-founders later included Bob Xu and Victor Wang, the well-known angel investors behind ZhenFund today – is the top provider of private education in China. The New Oriental story even inspired a movie by the award-winning director Peter Chan, American Dreams in China.

In 2006, New Oriental became the country's first education company to list its shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

As of late August 2018, the company’s network consisted of 88 schools, 1,100 learning centers and 18 bookstores in 76 cities. Its annual revenue has reached around RMB 20 billion, with a growth rate of 30%. The business has also expanded to training in other foreign languages, test prep, after-school tutoring, primary and secondary school education as well as various online courses.

Recalling New Oriental's IPO filing later, Yu, who became China’s richest teacher with a net worth of US$2.4 billion, said, “One must be accustomed to failures before achieving success. Inferiority honed my character, and the struggle for improvement helped me achieve success.”

Next, a nonprofit university? 

Not content with being simply an education mogul, Yu wants to be a “spiritual leader’’ to youth. “I want to teach them how to fight for a better future,” said Yu.

Yu is more than willing to use his own story to encourage young people who think success is out of reach: hearing about the trajectory of the education entrepreneur’s life can help his audience overcome their own inferiority complexes, fears and negative emotions.

He has written more than 10 books, and several have made Chinese bestseller lists, including The Relentless Pursuit of Success, which tells his rags-to-riches story. In many students’ eyes, Yu is more of a guru or spiritual mentor than an entrepreneur, the epitome of the notion that “knowledge reshapes destiny.” 

Yu has climbed to almost the highest point a peasant’s (or, for that matter, anyone’s) son could reach. But he has never forgotten where he started.

The education entrepreneur’s current dream is to build a privately run university to serve students like him. “I want to build a nonprofit private university, providing the best college education for students mainly from rural areas,” said Yu. “This is my strongest desire, and I’ll make it my life’s mission.” 

Edited by Wendy Lovinger and Wang Xiao'e